The Nels Cline Singers: Initiate

This studio/live set provides an accessible point of entry to the Wilco guitarist's ongoing jazz outfit.

The Nels Cline Singers


Label: Cryptogramophone
US Release Date: 2010-04-13
UK Release Date: Import

The cover art for the Nels Cline Singers' double-CD Initiate consists entirely of pictures of the Large Hadron Collider. This makes sense. There's a major mad-scientist vibe to this music. Just as the LHC has prompted fears of inadvertently creating a black hole and thus dooming mankind, Cline's brand of thorny, noisy, technologically sophisticated jazz seems perpetually and tantalizingly on the verge of collapse.

After a fragile collage of loops opens the album, the trio slams in with "Floored". Over an intensely funky groove that evokes Jack Johnson-era Miles Davis, Cline provides a six-minute master class in why he's a guitarist worth paying attention to. Harmonically forward-thinking and impossibly dextrous, Cline quickly moves past the standard jazz vocabulary to incorporate thoroughly novel touches -- effects pedals sample riffs and play them back in reverse, and screeching blasts of white noise finish what ordinary dissonance started. Miles Davis' music of the early '70s seems a valuable point of reference, in that one hesitates to call this jazz in the traditional sense. At this point it's just music.

Good music, too. The studio half benefits from being one of Cline's more accessible offerings. The funkiness of "Floored", the Bill Frisell-like Americana of "Grow Closer", the epic rock textures of "Red Line to Greenland" provide a starting point for those who might have struggled to get past the more intense dissonances of Draw Breath, the last offering from the Singers, or last year's solo effort Coward.

If the first disc has a flaw, it's that there's a certain sameness to the Singers' method. Most of the tracks are built around a phrase, riff, or chord sequence, which they repeat with variations until they've finished with it. Cline's guitar will eventually make a strange noise -- some tracks are nothing more than the most interesting sound he can conjure up at a given moment. While those sounds are usually pretty damn cool, "Grow Closer" and "Divining" wind up emerging as highlights by holding off on some of the digital trickery and focusing on slightly more conventional melodicism. In this context, when the loops and samples do surface a few minutes into "Divining", they are much more effective.

The live disc is more of a mixed bag. Versions of Joe Zawinul's "Boogie Woogie Waltz" and Carla Bley's "And Now the Queen, alongside Cline's own "Blues, Too" (a tribute to jazz guitar giant Jim Hall), provide a clearer sense of Cline's relationship to jazz. "Thurston County", originally from Coward, benefits greatly from its new trio setting. When bassist Devin Hoff and drummer Scott Amendola enter about halfway through, it feels like day breaking, before all its disparate elements cohere into a tense rocker. The minimalist, repetitive "Forge" is significantly harder going, though, and the 11-minute avant-garde spray of "Fly Fly" will test the patience of all but the most forgiving and open-minded listeners.

I came to Cline's music as I imagine most do nowadays, wondering what the new hotshot guitarist in Wilco does when left to his own devices. Fans of that band's genre-bending tendencies will not be disappointed. Cline's take on jazz reveals a musically omnivorous sensibility, restlessly creative and very, very cool. Check it out.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.